This summer will mark the 20th anniversary of the Winters Shakespeare Workshop, and the production team is gearing up for their first show on the new stage at City Park. They have decided to mark the occasion by putting on the play that started it all, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
With 20 years of experience, Winters Shakespeare Workshop has developed into a summer staple of the community. It is a five-week summer acting program for teen ages 13-19, which culminates in two performances of a Shakespearean comedy. Every year the group puts on a different play with a new batch of young actors.
With the generous support of the Winters Theatre Company, Winters Friends of the Library and talented Winters artists, the program has continued to teach generations of teenagers the self-confidence that it takes to get up on stage.
When the program began, there weren’t even enough teens enrolled to play all of the parts. This year, Mary Lou Linville, the program’s producer, started getting applications in February. She is encouraging people to sign up quickly.
“It’s grown bigger,” Linville says, as she lists the artists who joined the program as directors, musicians and coaches over the years.
Many former teen actors return to the program after graduation in order to work on the other side of the stage. One such graduate is Andrew Fridae, who acted in Winters Shakespeare Workshop for years before he returned as the director of three productions.
The program also depends on musical talent from the many musicians in the community. Linville points out that live music has always been included in the productions. Over the decades dozens of local musicians have joined the company’s band.
“I think a really big part of (the program) is inviting people from the community to contribute,” Linville explains.
For Linville, the Winters Shakespeare Workshop began with a vision for the first City Park.
“From the moment we built that stage, I wanted to do something on it,” she says.
Linville and Denise Cottrell set out to create a program that could be a fun and productive way for local high school students to spend their summer evenings.
In the early years the group started with a small cast, but took on ambitious projects. The Winters Shakespeare Workshop put on the first Northern California production of “Two Noble Kinsmen,” shortly after it was officially declared a Shakespearean play.
“We’ve had so many people who would come and help us,” Cottrell says, listing former directors Sarah Cohen and Linda Glick. “Then we hit on the idea that Russell (St. Claire) could come up (and direct) in the summer.”
St. Claire was a former colleague of Linville and Cottrell. In the past, they worked together in an experimental theater group called Just Above Sea Level. By the time Linville and Cottrell formed the Winters Shakespeare Workshop, St. Claire was winning awards for his stage directing in Los Angeles.
They reached out to him, and he began splitting his time between Winters and Los Angeles in order to direct for Winters Shakespeare Workshop.
Decades of teenagers trod the boards of the old wooden stage under the direction of St. Claire, putting on a rotating list of Shakespearian comedies. Linville points out that even when they put on the same play, every production was unique.
“Early in the season, we sit down with the director and the music director, and brainstorm,” Linville explains. The group comes up with a unique setting and time period for each production. The plays have been set anywhere from Nashville to Bollywood, and took place in time periods spanning from the 1600s to the distant future.
“You just want people to realize how contemporary Shakespeare is,” Linville says when she talks about the inspiration for updating the plays’ locations.
“It’s a way for the set designers, costumers and musicians to be playful with the script,” Linville explains. It’s a summer production, so she believes in keeping it fun.
That doesn’t mean that the actors aren’t learning valuable skills while they rehearse. Throughout the program the actors learn to memorize lines, adapt to new language, and work as part of an ensemble.
Cottrell says she will never forget the first time she saw St. Claire teach a group of actors how to do the “Star Trek Tumble.” The teens had to move across the stage together as if they were standing on a ship being tossed about in a storm.
While it was funny to watch, Cottrell points out that the move involved complex choreography. If one actor stayed still, lurched to the side at the wrong time or tumbled in the wrong direction, the scene would fall apart along with the illusion. After watching the actors Cottrell was impressed by the way they had learned to work as a group.
The teens also learn more traditional choreography throughout the program. Along with the live music comes singing and dancing rehearsals. Various cohorts of teen actors have learned Turkish folk dances, ballroom dancing and swing.
Linville and Cottrell have reveled in seeing the many pieces of the program come together to form a play at the end of each season. They have been continually impressed by the teenaged actors’ efforts.
“It’s just so exciting to see them grow as performers and realize they can memorize Shakespeare,” Cottrell laughs.
She says that when the cast works to create something together, they learn just how capable they really are.
“It builds self-confidence in a really joyous way,” Cottrell says.
Linville has seen the actors throw themselves into the work every year, even when the deadline is creeping up on them and the task of memorizing their lines, their entrances and their steps seems impossible. She says that she always sees them pull through and rise to task.
Linville believes that one of the most beautiful aspects of theater is the way that, “people throw themselves into a piece of art that is ephemeral, that is never the same twice.”
She is looking forward to seeing the program continue with the new stage, new actors and the same dedication to excellence that Winters Shakespeare Workshop has cultivated over their 20 years.
For information about joining the program, visit wfol.org and follow the Winters Shakespeare Workshop link, or call 795-3476. Find them on Facebook at www.facebook.com/wintersshakespeare/.
Applications will be accepted until Monday, May 14.
Auditions will be held on Sunday, May 20, at the Winters Branch library. Rehearsals will run from Sunday, Jun. 17, to Thursday, Jul. 19, with performances on Friday, Jul. 20, and Saturday, Jul. 21.